Investing in tobacco prevention just makes 'cents'

As a nurse, I have seen too many patients suffering from smoking-related conditions like lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. I have seen how the pain, disability, side-effects of treatment, and on-going anxiety about the future affects their lives and their families. Yet these personal tragedies and the public costs of tobacco use are preventable. During my 20-year career in occupational health, I helped conduct numerous workplace smoking cessation programs. We held smoking cessation clinics, provided access to medication, and ran popular smoking cessation competitions with prizes. Over the years, I witnessed the incredible value they had for people going through the hard work of quitting.

Even though the decision to use tobacco is a personal health choice, it carries a huge public cost each year. In 2009, Oregon's Medicaid cost for treating smoking-related illness and diseases was $290 million. These costs can be significantly decreased by a reduction in tobacco use if prevention and cessation programs are able to reach those who want help.

This legislative session, our representatives in the Oregon State Legislature have an opportunity to make a real investment that will protect Oregonians from the hazards of smoking while teaching our children healthy lifestyle habits. Right now estimates say 38,000 Oregonians age 17 and younger are smokers. Another 4,200 minors are projected to start each year.

In 1998, Oregon, along with 45 other states, negotiated the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (TMSA) with the four largest tobacco companies in the United States. The intent of the TMSA was to reduce the costs states pay for treating smoking-related illnesses. It also restricted tobacco company marketing practices, especially those targeting youth.

Since the settlement, Oregon has received more than $1 billion in TMSA funds from the tobacco industry. Yet the bulk of this money has not been spent on tobacco-related health services. Instead it has been spent on retiring state debt. Over the next two years, Oregon will retire the debts the TMSA funds have been paying off. That means we finally have the opportunity to fulfill the TMSA's objective: preventing and reducing tobacco use, especially among children, and lessening the financial toll tobacco takes on all Oregonians.

When Oregon's TMSA funds began to arrive in 2000, 85 percent of Oregon voters supported spending the funds on tobacco prevention and cessation. Despite the fact that none of the state's payments have been used for that purpose, Oregonians still agree 12 years later. According to an August 2012 poll, 85 percent of voters support dedicating at least 10 percent of Oregon's TMSA funds to tobacco prevention programs.

This legislative session gives our representatives another chance to honor the intent of the TMSA and Oregonians' wishes by dedicating the $120 million of Oregon's available TMSA funds to public health and tobacco prevention programs.

The Oregon Nurses Association and other leading health organizations want Oregon's TMSA funds to ensure a healthier tomorrow for all Oregonians. We are asking the legislature to invest in Oregon's Tobacco Prevention and Education Program, in our children's health by using funds to increase access to school-based health centers and physical education programs in our schools, and to Coordinated Care Organizations to support Oregon's health system transformation efforts.

Let's do what the original TMSA required and what Oregonians want — use the Tobacco Settlement funds to prevent young people from starting smoking, offer valuable assistance to smokers who want to quit, and cover some of the burdensome public/taxpayer costs of treatment and care.

Lynn Howe or Medford is a retired registered nurse and president of the Oregon Nurses Association Constituent Association No. 4.

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